A monk asked Master Visitation-Land: “A dog too has Buddha-nature, no?”
“Absence,” Land replied.
~ The No-Gate Barrier, translated by David Hinton
Most Zen folk are pretty familiar with the classic translation of this first case in the Wu-men Kwan (Gateless Barrier), a foundation koan of our school: “A monk asked Chao Chou, ‘Does a dog have Buddha nature, or not?’ Chao Chou replied, depending how you translate it: ‘Wu’ (Chinese), ‘Mu’ (Japanese), ‘No’ (English), and now ‘Absence’ (English 2.0).
Fundamentally, ours is not a translation project, what we are doing here in Zen. It is a realization project: understanding the ancient teachings upon the ground we now stand. It is not dependent on bridging cultural differences; it is personally sharing in a universal human experience. Nevertheless, in transporting Buddhist teachings from East to West, cultural translation has been necessary: will we read texts in English, Japanese, Sino-Japanese, Wade-Giles Chinese or Pinyin Chinese? Do we take monk’s vows, lay vows, or no vows at all? Do we wear robes, skirts, or no vestments of any kind? Those questions are what fascinate me about the new translation of the No-Gate Gateway by David Hinton, a respected scholar of Chinese poetry. For Hinton, the artist, the No-Gate Gateway is a beautiful collection of art. For us, I believe, it is a journeyman’s box of well worn and familiar tools.
When I first began sitting with this koan some time ago, we called it Mu (無). But we do not take up the koan ‘Mu’ anymore, we meditate with the koan ‘No’. Some weeks ago, in working with a student picking up the No koan for the first time, I suggested she read two of the koan collections used in our school. Being older translations, the books described Mu, and its nature. Not surprisingly, she felt an affinity for ‘Mu’, and thought the opposite for ‘No’. No reminded her of her childhood, when she was told “No!” often; it had a negative emotional charge. I thought that a real plus, and suggested we work with ‘No’ anyway. After a time, she described how No sort of settled down upon her, allowing her more openness to the koan, with No taking on a quality of ‘not-this’ and ‘not-that’, which, she said, suggested something larger and more spacious than she had previously supposed.
Not-this and not-that are not the Absence (無) of something nor its Presence (有), as Hinton would translate. It is human-ness. And we spell that N-o.